Picture the scene: In a remote part of Afghanistan, near the mountainous border with Pakistan, helicopters carrying dozens of elite Army Rangers race over the rugged landscape. Their target on this high-risk mission is an insurgent compound. It is broad daylight and the Rangers know the insurgents are heavily armed. But it’s considered a risk worth taking as reliable intelligence sources indicate a top al Qaeda commander is in that compound.
Within a matter of minutes, the helicopters touch-down and the Rangers immediately come under fire. One of the American soldiers who emerged from the helicopter that day was Staff Sergeant Leroy Petry. Seeking cover, Petry and another soldier pushed headlong into courtyard with high mud walls. And that’s when the enemy opened up with their AK-47 assault guns.
Leroy is hit in both legs. He’s bleeding badly, but he summons the strength to lead the other Ranger to cover. He radios for support while simultaneously hurling a grenade at the enemy, providing cover to a third Ranger who rushes to their aid. Suddenly, an enemy grenade explodes nearby, wounding Leroy’s two comrades. And then a second grenade lands — this time, only a few feet away.
At this point every human impulse would tell a person to turn and run away. After all, every soldier is trained to seek cover. That’s what Sergeant Leroy Petry could have done. Instead, this 28-year-old man with his whole life ahead of him, this husband and father of four, did something extraordinary. He lunged forward, toward the live grenade. He picked it up, cocked his arm to throw it back at the enemy, and it exploded, just as it left his hand.
With that selfless act, Leroy saved his two Ranger brothers. But his valor came with a price.
With that selfless act, Leroy saved his two Ranger brothers. But his valor came with a price. The force of the blast took Leroy’s right hand. Shrapnel riddled his body. Said one of his teammates later said, “I had never seen someone hurt so bad.” Even his combat-tested, battle hardened fellow Rangers were amazed at what Leroy did next. Despite his grievous wounds, he remained calm, actually put on his own tourniquet. He then continued to lead, directing his team, giving orders —- even directing the medics how to treat his wounds.
When the fight was over and victory achieved, Leroy lay quietly in a stretcher as he was loaded into a helicopter. Before the helicopter lifted off, one of his teammates ran over to shake Leroy’s only remaining hand. “That was the first time I shook the hand of someone who I consider to be a true American hero,” that Ranger said. Leroy Petry “showed that true heroes still exist and that they’re closer than you think.”
Choosing our Heroes
It is impossible to read or hear about such selflessness without wondering, “What compels such courage?” What leads someone like Leroy Peltry to risk everything so that others might live? For answers, we don’t need to look far. The roots of Leroy’s valor are all around us. They are present in the examples of everyday heroes in our midst who consistently bring out the best in those around them.
Of course, very few of these heroes wear a military uniform. The vast majority are found far from the battlefield.
- We see it in parents who make it a priority to instill in their children the importance of honesty, integrity and serving others;
- We see it in the compassion of high school teachers who invest extra time to mentor young people who are struggling to keep up, fit in or who just need someone to believe in them;
- We see it in emergency service workers, police officers and all those who risk their lives every day in our cities to keep others safe;
- We see it in business people, politicians and pastors who refuse to compromise their values, even when no one would know if they chose otherwise;
- And we see it in coaches, counselors and all those every-day heroes whose positive examples inspire us to make going the second mile, second nature.
It is a well-established fact that we look to others for guidance on how to do everything from resolving conflicts, to building our businesses or pursuing our dreams. For example, long before he ever became a Beatle, John Lennon idolized many of the old rhythm and blues greats, people like Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. He had their pictures on his wall and used them as inspiration when he first began playing the guitar.
In the absence of examples of healthy, empowered, inspiring people, our vision of what is possible in our lives is severely limited. Instead of pushing new bounds and risking moving in different, more empowering directions, we find it easier to play it safe. Allowing our belief in what we can accomplish to be dictated by our experiences rather than liberated by our imaginations.
Never Forget: We Are All Role Models
We must never forget that we are always serving as role models to others. No matter who you are, where you work, or what title, position, or rank you possess, you will leave your mark, for good or bad, on scores of people. Helping us all to understand why role modeling is the most powerful message we will ever send to those around us.
We must never forget that we are always serving as role models to others.
Sociologist Ernest Becker writes, “Man will lay down his life for his country, his society, his family. He will choose to throw himself on a grenade to save his comrades; he is capable of the highest generosity and self-sacrifice. But he has to feel and believe that what he is doing is truly heroic, timeless, and supremely meaningful.”
Becker reminds us that achieving true happiness and satisfaction in and through our lives demands we pursue goals that are relevant, honorable, and extend above and beyond ourselves. Life cannot be merely about us. If we want to thrive as citizens and as a nation, we must get back to basics. We must rediscover within ourselves that the most powerful tool we have to begin improving things in our surroundings is the example of how we live our lives—it’s just that simple.
…the most powerful tool we have…is the example of how we live our lives!
How might things change in our world if hero worship didn’t disappear with adolescence? What if taking notice of those particularly remarkable people in our lives helped remind us of the value of setting an example worth emulating? So please never forget that heroes aren’t limited to famous generals or comic book characters. They’re humans like you and me with flaws and frustrations—everyday people who choose to be something more by engaging when others won’t and serving when others don’t—inspiring everyone around them to consider doing the same.
So my advice to you is simple: choose your heroes and role models wisely, and let them lift you to heights you would not otherwise rise to on your own.